by Bob Phillips
I was living in Chicago, working at a community mental health center, during the raucous days of the Democratic primary in 1972. Nixon was president. Passionate opponents of Nixon and of the war that has become his burden were desperate to find a counter-hero. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, lifelong Methodist, bland personality, World War 2 bomber pilot and fierce opponent to the Viet Nam war was the guy.
Or was he? I recall the exultation many of my friends felt when McGovern won 2ndplace and 13 convention votes in the Illinois Democratic primary, despite the fierce opposition of Mayor Daley, union bosses, and the long-time owners of the Chicago Democratic party machine. McGovern supporters did nothing illegal; they did not cheat. They out-organized party regulars, those naysayers who warned that McGovern could not win the general election. At some post-primary gatherings some of my friends were deliciously giddy over the results. Later, when that strategy was reproduced effectively in numerous states, Senator McGovern was nominated, the white knight matched against the black knight Nixon and his trolls.
On election night, 1972 the white knight lost 49 of 50 states, including his home state. The Democratic party survived but took a national shellacking. The whupping was so bad that even after Nixon imploded in Watergate, whimpers from McGovern supporters of “I told you so” were dismissed by most Democratic party loyalists as whining rather than residual wisdom.
Fast forward to the 2019 General Conference elections. Progressive/liberal clergy, representing 0.4% of the church with 50% of the delegates, ran the tables in several conference elections, with some conferences in the south and Midwest joining the tradition of the Western Jurisdiction to exclude “traditionalist” clergy or laity as General Conference delegates. Progressives likewise gained US laity votes, though to a notably lesser extent. Rev. Mark Holland of Mainstream UMC exults that 76% of American annual conferences now align with the move to reject the 2019 General Conference and to shake off the controlling influence of non-American Methodism in efforts to impose their will on the US church that foots 99% of their bills.
Without question more theologically liberal clergy and lay delegates will be in Minneapolis from the US church. Many have been elected primarily out of a single-issue negative reaction to St. Louis. Their mandate will be to engage numerous issues challenging a declining US denomination and an expanding non-American Methodism. Politically sensitive issues will be decided, ranging from a re-do on abortion and divestment from Israel to immigration ministry. St. Louis was a special single issue gathering; Minneapolis offers a menu of issues.
The US clergy delegates, all of whose faithfulness to Jesus is not in question, include a relatively small minority with a track record of sustained growth in churches they serve, such as Matt Miofsky of Missouri. Most records of US clergy delegates indicate flatline or declining worship attendance in the challenging US culture, but they and their US lay counterparts will be asked to provide decisive leadership in turning around the ailing American denomination. Delegations disproportionately heavy with current and former conference and denominational staff will be challenged to upend and reinvent an institution that has delivered 51 years of sustained decline. Since most US churches that do, or don’t, conduct same sex weddings share the metrics of decline, nothing Minneapolis decides on sexuality will jumpstart a revitalized US church, whether reaffirming, revising or rejecting the existing BOD.
Here is where the McGovern story offers caution and direction. His supporters legitimately worked the primary system and elected delegates who brought him the nomination,but the duly elected delegates did not represent a huge slice of loyal Democrats, a fact made painfully evident in the general elections. In numerous conferences, especially in some southern and midwestern areas, the election of overwhelmingly liberal delegates, albeit “liberal” on a single issue, likewise does not reflect the reality of the lived faith embraced by a huge slab (in some cases a majority) of the laity and clergy they will represent in Minneapolis.
Do the liberal delegates elected really believe the ‘bigotry-ignorance-primitive third world’ trifecta narrative used to define supporters of traditional marriage? Some do and some don’t, but narratives have a way of jumping fences set by their keepers, since such narratives can never be selectively targeted or released. If the perception rises that many delegations elected to represent some annual conferences do not in fact represent the actual religion and ethics of many/most laity in those conferences, those folks will rebel as certainly as life-long Democrats pulled the lever for Nixon in 1972 (while holding their noses) rather than go for the legally nominated party candidate McGovern. If GC2020 reaffirms a traditional Christian understanding of marriage, and the delegates react in surly and defiant ways, the reaction from the folks back home could presage civil war. For the US, one civil war ought to be enough.
Consider these closing recommendations. First, conferences would be wise to circulate the delegates among churches and groups well in advance of GC2020; visibility, conversation, and listening to all points of view can help create trust and emotional buy-in for the process, especially among those (of left or right) who feel excluded. Most conferences never have done this but now is the time. Second, delegations need to demonstrate total transparency, pledging to reveal how and why each delegate voted on major issues (not just sexuality).The habit of secrecy must die, totally, if trust has a chance. Laity has a right to know how they were represented, not just that they were represented. Third, delegations must address and defuse suspicions from left and right regarding intentions.The left sees the right seeking to push them out of the church by vindictive rules regarding sexuality, with the poverty and lack of sophistication of African and other global delegates being played by US conservative interest groups toward selfish ends. The right sees the left seeking to push them out of the church by imposing redefinitions of marriage that conscience cannot abide, while slamming the door on gracious ways to separate, all while treating global Methodism with white western contempt. Leaders from each group must confront and reject such suspicions in their own camp.
As delegations name the demons, publicly model openness to God’s leading and seek ongoing conversation with all perspectives, good can come. Openness to new expressions of the Wesleyan way, birthed like Jacob and Esau from the 50+ year UMC Rebekah, is crucial. And for those committed to winner-take-all outcomes? …trench warfare beckons for the relatively few who decide to remain while multitudes from left-center-right likely drift or march away in search of a church that reminds them more of Jesus rather than a match card for World Federation Wrestling. If left and right commit to birth a new approach and a reformed church? Then all combatants honestly can say, in words from the McGovern era, “Peace really is at hand.”